Music Webmaster Len Mullenger


Danny ELFMAN Music for a Darkened Theatre (Vol I). OST MCA MCAD-10065  

Music from: Pee Wee's Big Adventure; Batman; Dick Tracy; Beetlejuice; Nightbreed; Darkman; Back to School; Midnight Run; Wisdom; Hot to Trot; Big Top Pee Wee; The Simpsons; Alfred Hitchcock presents: The Jar; Tales from the Crypt; Face Like a Frog; Forbidden Zone; Scrooged.  


This album is a complete delight from start to finish. It is a first class representation of the works of Danny Elfman specialist in the Gothic, the comic and the grotesque (often the grotesquely comic) - and the anarchic.

The album opens exuberantly with a seven minute suite from Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. Elfman, himself, says in his very pithy notes " will undoubtedly hear my tributes to Nino Rota and Bernard Herrmann, the two composers who were responsible for igniting my interest in film music way back when I was a kid..." This high-spirited, bouncy music, redolent of the fairground and the circus with clowns, trapeze artists and a demented carousel, could so easily have accompanied a Fellini film.

Then we move from the light to relative darkness - and to the Gothic. The senses are assaulted by the emergence, out of cavernous depths, of the thrilling Batman theme. It seems to suggest a controlled madness if you like, Batman's obsessive, ruthless war on lawlessness besides the heroic. There are two movements in this continuous eight minute suite; after the statement of the theme "Up the Cathedral" with mounting excitement generated by ascending, driving strings, organ swells, crashing cymbals and staccato brass figures. Voices, intoning some satanic-like paean, join the orchestra as the chase continues in "Descent into Mystery".

For Dick Tracy, Elfman manages, appropriately, to inject a rather cartoon-like character into his score which mixes mystery with romance. (You feel that he has his tongue well and truly in his cheek with this one.) There is a very marked nod in the direction of Gershwin with tremblingly respectful timpani rolls. Droll, droll...

"Daylight come and we want to go home..." intones the husky voice at the start of this outrageous ghost-ridden, fun-filled romp, that is the music for Beetlejuice It is quirky and irreverent, and it's a real musical roller coaster; it grabs you by the scruff of the neck and pushes you through all manner of bangs, whoops, screeches and slithers; there's even a mad broken tango in there. A perfect accompaniment to all the on-screen insanity. Great fun.

Nightbreed takes us back into the shadows. As Elfman says, "... it combines the dark, funny, scary, sweet and tribal all in one ...using children's voices and a whole slew of ethnic drums and instruments together with an orchestra in an attempt to bring a unique musical tone to the film." He succeeds for this music really resonates for this listener. There is a parallel sense of compassion along with the feeling of ghoulish menace (very palpable in a Voodoo type of dance) adding an extra dimension to this very impressive score which again demonstrates how imaginatively Elfman integrates voices into his orchestral fabric.

Darkman is another troubled and turbulent Gothic score. It is powerfully driven music once more and again there is that overpowering sense of lurking evil, of the beast barely caged. The organ has a major role, as in Batman; and there is a slow march for brass over ascending tremolando strings before harp arpeggios usher in calmer, more romantic material.

Back to School is short and sweet. It's rather silly really, the clowns are out again and running berserck.

Midnight Run's music contrasts the slow and limpid with the fast and exhilarating. It begins with a set of snidish-sounding electronic guitars that seem to be menaced by a rattle-snake. This is a biggish jazz band-based score with the aforementioned guitars massed across the sound stage in front of the brass and saxes. The latter half of the track is a piano and harmonium led blues piece. Another facet of Elfman's wide-ranging talents.

There is a primitive feel of the jungle about Wisdom. Voices and a wide variety of exotic percussive effects with some electronic punctuations all add up to another hypnotically- rhythmed, ear-arresting score. There is a feeling that everything including the kitchen sink is being used here!

Hot to Trot. As Danny says, "I never pass up a chance to write for accordions." - even though they have to fight against the electronics and percussion. Another fun item. It's amazing how Elfman can almost make his instruments talk. Just listen to the part for the harmonica.

Big Top Pee Wee see track one - another wild and wacky excursion to the circus - this time its the saxophone, tuba and accordion that have most of the fun. There's a rather nice touch of pathos too - the clown in tears?

The Simpsons - a brief explosion of anarchy. Raspberries all round!

The music for Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Jar, funnily enough had me visualising hammers hitting a line of jars filled with varying amounts of liquid to provide some intriguing modulations if not a distinctive tune. The score is appropriately sinister but comic too. Are there dastardly deeds afoot - can I hear that skeleton in the cupboard and sort of Tom and Jerry tiptoeing up the stairs? Music to ignite the imagination.

So too are the dreaded thumps which open Tales from the Crypt. It's the Elfman mix of terror and buffoonery again. With the double bassoon as the main villain.

Face like a Frog is - well, totally, grotesquely funny. Its just completely, hilariously - wild!

Forbidden Zone is for two pianos. The Dies Irae shadows its rather sad, enigmatic little journey.

Scrooged is a substantial nine-minute track. It starts with children's voices chanting over sleigh bells; all pursued by sinister figures of the Batman variety. Then there is a colourful, atmospheric mixture of boozy saxes, chiming figures, and sinister flutterings and sighings. This Christmas Carol chills as much as it charms and the ending is unusually bleak.

An absorbing album and strongly recommended


Ian Lace

And Paul Tonks says:-

The release of this album in 1990 acknowledged how rapidly the composer had become a cult item. A hideous term for his fans ("Elfies") sprang up, which probably best describes those who rushed to by the disc on release (ahem).

There are 17 suites and themes pasted together in this first volume. They do not run chronologically, so it must be presumed some thought went into the sequencing of cues - it eludes me however ! Opening appropriately on Elfman's first studio picture, Pee Wee's Big Adventure is a lesson in meeting expectation. He was hired by director Tim Burton on the strength of what he'd heard from the rock band Oingo Boingo. Not formally trained in musical composition, this chance of a lifetime was also understandably daunting. He therefore did what most of us might well have done in such circumstances - adapt what we know. Throughout this suite made up of 4 album cues, you are invited to doff your cap to Georges Delerue, Nino Rota, and Bernard Herrmann. I won't spoil the fun that's to be had by discovering the specific films themselves, but where Rota's concerned a look into Federico Fellini's greats is quite revealing...

Paul Reuben's Pee Wee is a crossbreed of Jerry Lewis with a mime clown. With plenty of surreal carnivalesque imagery in Burton's film, Elfman created a very refreshing comedic sound which obviously caught studio's ears. An immediate glut of comedy scores appeared; obviously influenced by it. There are some remarkably well orchestrated parts in cues such as "Breakfast Machine". What they demonstrate as is so often the case in his career is just how adept with percussion he is. Rhythm was the fundamental key to the success of his first score. It goes beyond mere 'Mickey Mousing', and as an example there is a scene in the film where Pee Wee storms up to a house and there is a visual gag of him repeatedly knocking on the door. Elfman makes the whole thing incredibly funny by anticipating timing of the knocks in the incidental build-up. Without that feel for a good beat, things might have been rather different.

Aside from the fun of the fair, the film also managed to allow Burton to exercise his darker sides in some smaller scenes. The Herrmann influence was therefore allowed licence in the music. The cue "Stolen Bike" (not here) is the best example, but even in this opening lively suite there is the familiar use of harp and brass to give enough of a taster for all that was to come...

By skipping to their third cinematic partnership together, the album proves just how much Herrmann means to Elfman. Batman was the biggest thing about the end of the '80s. It captured everything about the need to flash the size of your wallet in the 'Loadsamoney' era. As far as the film's score is concerned, we need only be thankful that no-one scrimped on the budget. It could all very nearly have been a wash of songs from the likes of Prince and Michael Jackson, but in the end the director's voice outweighed the producer's. Somehow the album's version of the score (and these are nearly all taken from the already available releases), sounds smaller than it does to film. The Sinfonia of London still makes a hell of a racket though, and the classic "Batman Theme" is even more memorable when you know the composer put it together stood in the toilet of a plane taking from England to the States !

There is more than just a dash of the opera about the music, yet a choir is only used the once for the cue "Descent Into Mystery" for a showing off scene of the Batmobile hurtling through a forest at great speed. It is with no small amount of shame that I confess to knowing there are a total of 18 cymbal crashes in this cue, making it the most dramatic part of the suite. It is sadly a weak link in the represented scores, since there are far better tracks that could have been used here. Also, it is receives the largest number of edits of all the collection's pieces. In total they would not have exceeded the disc's running time, and this can therefore only have been an artistic (vanity) choice. [Pee Wee suffered the loss of the second half of its first cue too - the better half unfortunately]

Still in comic book territory comes Dick Tracy. The fact that this is the original unused main title is acknowledged, but that isn't a selling point since the version of the love theme was replaced by a terrific upbeat hero theme - which we don't get. Relishing the slushy larger-than-life opportunity, he certainly delivers a fine lover's tune for strings but the preceding brassy subdued fanfare is far more creative. In fact there were again many better cues that could have represented the score better.

The backtrack to Beetle Juice (or Beetlejuice as it seems to be formatted everywhere but actually in the film !), is part of the reason I question the sequencing. It's a light-heartedness that interrupts the more serious mood before and after. That's not to knock the music itself, which is a sprightly jig for the "Main Titles" with innovative samples beefing up the smaller orchestra and mixed choir. It bounces very merrily into a segue with the slightly more serious "End Titles", and confirms by this point that the collection is largely concerned with dishing out the big themes. Something that the film has always had to its credit is the inspired use of songs by Harry Belafonte. Burton's idea of a certain type of 'holiday music' pointed very specifically on the musical map for Elfman, and there is a whole sense of breezy nothin' doin' alongside the spookiness.

Real horror comes with Clive Barker's Nightbreed - what a mess. After some easily identifiable Herrmannesque flourishes in the subterranean depths of the "Main Titles", this suite presents parts of what is still Elfman's loudest score to date. The exaggerated 'whoops' of the choir are in direct contrast to the later sound of Edward Scissorhands. Here, it's every shock chord for itself and is probably about as half and half a listening experience as soundtracks get. The melody with atonality is mixed thick and fast, and takes an acquired ear to appreciate.

Blending everything that has come so far is Darkman - another example of Elfman working with his idol directors (Sam Raimi here). Interestingly, you can hear the "Main Titles" theme for this gothic misadventure previewed in the "Clown Dream" segment of the Pee Wee's Big Adventure suite. There it's just a muted horn. For the whole tragedian aspect of Liam Neeson's Phantom of the Opera wannabe, the theme is played larghetto with just a hint of the circus in the background once again. The most abundant use of his dadadadadada horns features here, long before their predictable inclusion became overtaken by his current favourite samples.

Here the album effectively enters a second catalogue of material. With all the big school of blockbuster scoring dealt with, the lesser known quirky oddities get some attention. Starting with Back To School, the first style exhibited is a neo-classical piano running amok. Midnight Run is one of the most entertaining albums in its own right, but even this one small snatch of Rhythm 'n' Blues is satisfying enough. Wisdom is an all electronic score, and was all performed by Elfman himself too. The one man show had a great theme in its "Main Titles", but sadly we only get two lesser cues. There's a first in the availability of the funkiness of Hot To Trot. Its accordion sample and guitars perfectly complement Midnight Run (so it's a shame they weren't sequenced as neighbours). Then after all the suppressed desires to work for the circus, his wish came true with Big Top Pee Wee. What a shame it could not have been a more worthy sequel. Unable to re-use any of the material from the first (different studios), he still got to have some fun, and the "Love Theme" is an unexpected treat in an old fashioned grandiose way.

Turning to TV, we have the omnipresent Simpsons theme (the international annual residuals of which must be able to support a sizeable family). The Jar was his second collaboration with director Burton, and a long forgotten one at that. It did offer Elfman his first opportunity to directly follow Bernard Herrmann (he has just arranged for the new Psycho of course), and it shows. It's quite a lightweight piece, but the underlying sinisterness is all the better for it. The organ and harpsichord combination for Tales From the Crypt almost seems like a genre cliché, yet somehow it comes alive (or undead) with the catchy theme.

We get into real fannish territory for the penultimate couplet. Face Like A Frog is a short animated tale scored for a friend. It doesn't really progress as any sort of thematic development, more a cobbling together of experimentations with a keyboard (side note: see comments for review of Pee Wee's Playhouse in Volume Two). That's also largely true of Elfman's real first movie Forbidden Zone directed by brother Richard. The former Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo were called upon to play to and in the movie, but Elfman managed to find time to put in more, and the first of many beautiful "Love Themes".

The most collectable part of the album is tagged last in the unreleased Scrooged. After recognising the opening as reminiscent of Toto's Dune, the remaining 8 minutes don't actually leave that much more of an impression. The harpsichord has already made an appearance, as have the wordless choir. Looking back from its position it indicates just how little there was to sell the album on at the time other than the composer's popularity, and sadly we had to wait 6 years for a much worthier Volume Two...


Paul Tonks


Ian Lace

Paul Tonks

Return to Index